In the past two decades, the American public has gravitated toward political poles. A recent Pew poll showed that record numbers of Americans have deemed their ideological counterparts “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” The personalization of our newsfeeds has decreased interaction with opposing viewpoints, and when exchanges do happen, they are increasingly ineffective.
Is idea-exchange even worthwhile anymore? Can people really change their minds? Below, we’ll explore three reasons why we can, and three reasons why not.
Minds can be changed.
Change is common.
The notion that people do not change their minds contradicts what we readily observe about the human experience. People who’ve eaten meat their whole lives become vegetarians. People change religions or take one up after a lifetime of atheism. They change political parties too (former NYC mayor, Michael Bloomberg has been a Democrat, Republican and Independent). There is no thought system in existence, no matter how deeply entrenched, that cannot ultimately be undone.
Win bees with honey, not vinegar.
Positivity can go a long way in changing people’s minds. A review of Reddit’s ChangeMyMind forum revealed that people who remained polite and practiced hedging – a linguistic tool used to make an argument appear less threatening (“it may be that”) – succeeded more often in changing people’s minds. Another study determined that people are more likely to change their minds when they feel good about themselves. People who had practiced positive self-affirmation before entering an argument were more influenced by the argument than those who had only argued, without the benefit of the self-affirmation activity. Positivity opens the door to a flexible mind.
Change is a process.
Change, for both behavior and thought, is often not the result of one brilliant counter argument, but a process that develops slowly over time. Science writer, Jennifer Oullette, likens changing one’s mind to phase transitions – the point at which a substance transforms from one state of matter (like liquid) to another (like gas). Liquid water can sit on an open flame for what seems like ages before the water turns to steam. Those expecting their opponent to announce a reversal of their opinion midstream would do well to remember that a watched pot never boils.
Minds can’t be changed.
We’re programmed to resist changes of heart.
Evolution has programmed humans to resist changing our minds. Our survival hinges on our ability to cooperate with each other. The earliest humans increased their ability to cooperate by forming bonds based on shared ideas and beliefs, just like today. Our beliefs are a pronouncement of loyalty and identity. When we pronounce loyalty, we increase our safety in two ways: first, by showing we are part of a large group that is not easy to threaten, and second, by increasing the likelihood that we will receive support from that group. As such, our propensity to lean somewhat blindly toward the beliefs of our group of collaborators (and reject the beliefs of others) is part of the evolutionary hardwiring that has helped us to survive.
Countless studies have revealed the discouraging truth that people don’t often allow facts to intervene in their worldview. This is because belief and opinion are often tied to identity. For example, Christians organize their ethics and actions around the teachings of Jesus. So, when someone challenges a core belief (how did Jesus walk on water?), they are not just challenging an idea, but the foundation upon which a person has built her life. Given that on the major issues (which differ from one person to another) views and identity are linked, it is unsurprising that many people will double-down on a certain belief when a fact challenges their worldview. For example, white nationalists, eager to prove their Aryan bona fides, have started utilizing genetic testing services to verify their “whiteness.” When their results show that their ancestry is not exclusively white, instead of abandoning their belief in their whiteness (and in white superiority), they question the validity of the tests.
First impressions count the most.
People tend to conform to the ideas they learned as children, not only because of the feelings of security generated at home, but because first impressions make stronger imprints on the brain than those that follow. Studies have found that a first impression, once formed, is hard to undo. This is especially true if a subject or person is first presented to you in a negative light. For example, one study that appeared in Social Cognition showed that people who observed someone who had made a bad first impression were slow to believe she had changed for the better, even after weeks of performing kind acts.
Bottom Lines: People’s natural and social impulses guide them away from change as much as it steers them toward it. What do you think? Are we hopelessly set in our ways, or always free to break into new mindsets?